The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words rang true once more. There was Rory McIlroy, just 23 and already a two-time major champion, soaking it all in. Watching proudly from the ropeline was his father Gerry, who has always said that these are Rory’s dreams not his own or those of his wife Rosie.
Father and son fell into a truly emotional embrace that cried relief more than ecstasy. While victory in the US Open at Congressional last year announced McIlroy’s arrival on the major stage, Sunday’s US PGA exhibition was the truly watershed moment in the young man’s career.
Sportsmen rarely like to admit that they are bothered by media talk yet McIlroy and his family often appear to take the real and imagined criticisms (and slights) to heart. For the second successive major, he announced afterwards that he was glad to prove people wrong when in reality, the only people who truly count have never ceased to praise him - his peers and an 18-time major winner by the name of Nicklaus.
Q: How satisfying is it to answer the criticism, and did that motivate you?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I don’t think I could have answered it in any better way. And yeah, to be honest, it did motivate me. I did want to go out there and prove a few people wrong. That’s what I did. It took me all of four weeks to get my game back in shape and get out of my minislump, and this is the result.
At Congressional last year, McIlroy was answering those who said he would be scarred forever by his meltdown in the final round of the Masters just 70 days earlier. This week he was replying to those who wondered if he had become derailed by his love affair with Caroline Wozniacki following five successive mediocre performances in the grand slam events. Why McIlroy would be bothered by people speculating, bizarrely, that he could be a one-hit wonder, is a mystery.
After all, golf is not the be all and end all of his existence. As the great Irish professional and former Ryder Cup player Des Smyth told Ireland’s Newstalk radio on Monday morning, McIlroy’s got more in common with Jack Nicklaus than Tiger Woods. He’s got a life outside the game and is not consumed by it:
“He is not Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods is a totally different animal. It appears to me that Tiger is almost in the Gary Player mold where it is almost an obsession to be number one. I think Rory takes it in his stride. He realises how talented he is. He realises how good he is and he now knows even more than if I get my A game I am going to win whatever tournament I am playing in. I think he has proved that. Now, is he going to beat Tiger Woods? I don’t know. He strikes me more as a Tom Watson or a Jack Nicklaus. They took their success as it came, enjoyed it, but it wasn’t life or death stuff… I think he is a more chilled out guy. I think he enjoys his friends, he enjoys his family. He’s got a girlfriend. He enjoys that. He is a guy that enjoys his life. I have been out on tour for 40 years and I often scratch my head and wonder with guys who are winning consistently, do they ever have any fun and enjoy themselves, because they are so obsessed with it. And I don’t think Rory is that type of guy. I think he will go into a bit of a lull in time and he will spark again. And when the big ones come he will build up and try and win them.”
Talk will turn over the next few days of ‘guestimated’ bonus payments of $8m from his sponsors. Yet McIlroy is not obsessed by the accumulation of material wealth. He just wants to play. And win.
Like Woods and Nicklaus, he can overpower a course. Yet he’s also a showman in the mold of Seve Ballesteros, which is a quality he’s possessed since he was a kid chipping balls into a washing machine on local TV.
Ask any Irish golf follower who watched McIlroy in his amateur days and they will recount some tale of derring do, a shot that said: “Look what I can do. Did you see that?”
Despite all the massive natural talent, there have been many natural ups and downs along the way for McIlroy, even in his moments of triumph. Yet he has not been averse to making tough calls.
Just ask Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, who guided McIlroy through the first four years of his professional career only to be let go at the end of his breakthrough major season last year.
McIlroy began re-thinking his game just days after the 2010 Masters. On Sunday, all the pieces of the jigsaw finally snapped together. Had it not been for that infamous final round “meltdown” at Augusta last year, he might never have addressed the subtle putting nuances that dogged him that day or put his finger on the mental keys that make handling major pressure than much easier.
Dave Stockton has been more than just a putting coach. Getting McIlroy to putt with an unconscious mind, like a man writing is signature, has been crucial. But Stockton’t homespun wisdom also appeals to McIlroy’s uncomplicated nature. Reminding him in Akron of the importance of good body language had a huge knock-on effect in the US PGA.
For a player who is reputed to smile his way from dawn to dusk, McIlroy has very often pouted his way around the golf course this year. A club was thrown in frustration. He’d say it’s hard to smile when you are not happy with the way things are going. Yet a positive exterior can help inspire more inner belief and McIlroy never appeared to look anything but happy with his lot at the Ocean Course.
The steadfast Michael Bannon has been instrumental in harnessing McIlroy’s natural talent since the mid 1990s. They’ve honed that swing through years and years of hard work yet by May, the once well-oiled machine was squeaking noticeably.
Before McIlroy missed the cut in the US Open at the Olympic Club, Bannon announced that would be giving up his club job at Bangor and joining his pupil on the road full time. It’s proved to be a happy decision and a comforting safety net.
As for the comparisons with Woods, McIlroy appears to take that kidn of talk with a pinch of salt. Just as there will never be another Ben Hogan or Jack Nicklaus, there will never be another Tiger Woods. In time we will be saying that there will never be another Rory McIlroy, whoever he turns out to be.
Right now, his A game is so much better than the rest that he’s golf’s undisputed number one. Of the 15 or so major winners in the world’s top 50, just three are in their 20s and McIlroy is still three years younger that Keegan Bradley, the junior of the three.
His biggest rival is probably swinging in short pants somewhere in Asia right now, though there is a man living on Jupiter Island in Florida who’d beg to differ.
If Don King was involved in golf, he’d be negotiating the Dust Up in Augusta with the Woods and McIlroy camps right now.
As US Ryder Cup skipper Davis Love said yesterday when asked about a possible showdown between the two at Medinah next month: “I’d want to go watch that one.”